“Is an old memory / just another way of saying goodbye?” Adam Granduciel of asks us over the top of a quintessential descending bassline doubled on tinkling keys. Cynics would say that the War on Drugs’ revitalisation of classic rock is merely another way of bidding farewell to an imagined past where music by men with guitars and oversized amplifier stacks ruled the airwaves, as their ironic moniker of “World’s best Beer commercial rock band” would suggest; and the comparisons with the Grateful Dead’s 1980s hit “Touch of Grey” will strike anyone without a soft spot for jam bands as a Roger Federer tier backhand of a compliment. But ultimately, The War on Drugs don’t care, and nor should they. Holding On is a thing of melodic beauty, throwing hooks at the listener from every angle and every instrument, from the glockenspiels straight off Springsteen’s Born to Run, the synths off a Bryan Adams smash, and, of course, the guitars (what else), where the War on Drugs channel Jerry Garcia’s lyrical dexterity and the hazy abstraction of Kevin Shields to exceptional effect. In other words, it is a distillation of every perennially unfashionable classic rock trope around. Yet Holding On will never sound stale: Granduciel may sing of a relationship where separation and growing apart are iterated in the undeniably Springsteenian terms of “heading down a different road, but the details are elusive, as if the fact that there “ain’t no truths from the past” is a function of his memory’s lack of clarity rather than epistemological void which the past represents. If the War on Drugs are holding on to the promise of classic rock, they know well enough to refract it through the promise of the future, and that the only way to hold on without losing a grip is to risk going too fast.
They may well be saying goodbye, but Holding On feels more and more like the War on Drugs will be saying hello to a new cadre of fans with each listen.